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Kentucky River Palisades, KY

The Kentucky River Palisades. Photo by Abigail Laub.

In the middle of manicured horse farm country, discover the Kentucky River and its majestic Palisades – 200-foot limestone rock outcroppings that tower over the wild, decidedly unmanicured river.

“My favorite thing is being by myself floating down the river and watching the wildlife come out,” says Bonnie Phelps, owner of the Kentucky River Otter Outpost just outside of Lexington. “It’s just awesome, everything that you see. Sometimes we see otter and beaver and sometimes raccoons, osprey and of course peregrine (falcon). There’s a blue heron rookery.” The stretch of the river containing the Palisades is a little over 50 miles long, Bonnie explains. “There is so much (concentrated) in one area, like Camp Nelson Heritage Park, High Bridge, Shaker Village, unlimited fishing opportunities, wading up the creeks.”

Launch your boat of choice into the Kentucky River in the morning to enjoy the calm waters as the sun streaks through the tall Palisades. Once the day heats up, find relief under the shade of overhanging trees and from all-natural air conditioning from hidden caves. Look for waterfalls, creeks and slow-moving rapids spilling out from side creeks along the way. Launch from the outpost and immediately enter the Palisades, where the river cuts through the Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve. The Palisades region continues all the way to the state capitol of Frankfort and includes eight different nature preserves and state parks. The rest is undisturbed private land.

Approximately eight nautical miles from launch is the mouth of Jessamine Creek, another good option for hiking along the river and paddling. In the hot summer months wading is also a good activity. Faster-moving rapids in the spring allow for whitewater kayaking. Further down the river is High Bridge, a railroad trestle built in 1877 that crosses over the river.

Get a closer look at the wildlife and see the Palisades from up high while hiking through the woods of the Jim Beam Nature Preserve and the multiple other state parks and preserves in the area.

Where it’s at: An hour and a half from Louisville, less than two hours from Cincinnati. From Lexington, KY, head south on US 27 (Nicholasville Road) about 20 miles to the Kentucky River near Camp Nelson, KY. Drive across the river and take the first left onto Old Lexington Road East. Follow the road to the end about 1.5 miles to the Kentucky River Otter Outpost.

Contact: The Nature Conservancy, (859) 259-9655

Digs: Camp Nelson RV Park is right next to the put in; they’ll let you pitch a tent for $20 a night, or (859) 548-2113; The Scott Station Inn in Wilmore, (859) 858-0121 or ($39-$65 per night, most rates based on double occupancy). Ask around locally and you might find a backcountry site you can access from your boat.

Grub: Three Suns Bistro in Nicholasville has fresh, healthy food served up right, (859) 245-0048 or

Brew: A University of Kentucky mainstay, Pazzo’s in Lexington boasts delicious pizza and the largest draft beer selection in Central Kentucky, (859) 255-5125 or

Gear and Outfitting: Kentucky River Otter Outpost at (859) 699-3400 or Rentals and river tours are available. Call ahead.

Cost: Spend as little as five dollars to launch your own boat.